By Max Rimlinger
An Animated Alien Acid Trip
French animated film, Fantastic Planet, is a surreal trip to an alien planet that bewilders the viewer while presenting a serious critique of racism. On release, it won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1973 and has since grown a cult following (of which I, admittedly, am a member). Director René Laloux drops you into a world of uncanny landscapes and Seussian flora, where everything appears menacing. But, despite the unusual setting, the story is an all-too-familiar allegory of oppression.
The story begins on the planet Ygam, where the human-like Oms are ruled by blue giants called Draags. They see the Oms as worthless pests. Draag children play by setting their pet Oms against one another in fighting rings, and the adults regularly slaughter them in droves. One day, a young Draag named Tiwa finds an Om named Terr and, between play sessions of toying around and dressing him up, allows him to listen in on her lessons. Having had enough of captivity, Terr becomes educated and makes his escape, discovering what lies beyond Draag civilization.
The plot of Fantastic Planet challenges the audience and forces them to question their own prejudices. By making the oppressors aliens, it puts you in the shoes of the oppressed and asks, “How do you like it?” The film’s argument is multi-faceted, as you can see it as a criticism on the rights of animals and pets as well as a stark deconstruction of the thinking that breeds racism and genocide in humans. That being said, the story feels disjointed at times. Characters are underdeveloped and often disappear right after being introduced. On top of that, the ending is rather abrupt and trite. The serious nature of the story gave me high hopes for how it would end, but I was left wanting more. Despite its flaws, the story is a thought-provoking allegory that gives the vivid experience more coherence and purpose.
The most striking aspect of Fantastic Planet is the animation. The film looks like no other. Lead animator Roland Topor uses the underappreciated technique of paper cutouts animated with stop motion to great effect. The visuals are a treat for the eyes and define the unmistakable aura that gives the movie its charm. A product of its time, the influence of the psychedelic movement of the 60s and 70s is felt with the animation’s kaleidoscopic colors and hallucinogenic forms.
Environments are grotesque in a way that piques your curiosity. The shadows enveloping the face of a Draag as it stares down at you fill you with dread. The thicket of gnarled branches, riddled with colorful tumors, makes Terr’s escape seem even more treacherous. The sinister smile of a tree as it hurls passing birds into the ground gives the environment a threatening character. Every scene brings a new fantastical visual that deepens your immersion into the setting.
The score also plays a large part in developing the atmosphere of the movie. Composed by Alain Goraguer, the French funk soundtrack hypnotizes you with its strong melodies and repetitive, jam-like structure. The hazy prog-rock-inspired tracks are filled with dissonant harmonies and staccato strings that emphasize the mysterious or terrifying sequences. A moment that stands out to me is the commanding and disconcerting lullaby of a choir that sounds as meditating Draags ascend into the sky. It takes a surreal visual and transforms it into an ethereal experience. Fantastic Planet‘s score takes the atmosphere of the film to new heights.
The Snails, Fantastic Planet‘s predecessor, was also a collaboration between René Laloux and Roland Topor. The films are quite alike, as they share the duo’s unsettling visual style, albeit much less refined in The Snails. They are both surreal tales about the destruction of human society by giant creatures. The films differ, however, in tone and scope. The Snails is humorous and lighthearted, and while Fantastic Planet has a certain whimsical flair, it takes itself much more seriously. Moreover, Laloux and Topor had grander aspirations with Fantastic Planet, employing a cohesive, feature-length plotline and polished production. The pair’s artistic growth between the two films is clear and puts Fantastic Planet‘s ambitions into perspective.
With a psychedelic atmosphere and mesmerizing production, Fantastic Planet is a must watch for those looking for something different. The plot is not the main attraction which could be an issue for some people, but if you are keen on great animation and becoming deeply immersed in a world, then Fantastic Planet is right for you.